Catharsis, the Medicine of the Mind

blog-picsIf I were forced to choose a favorite kind of literature- my “desert island” genre, if you will- I’m fairly sure it would be the Tragedy. No other genre inspires me or makes me happier to be alive than a good Tragedy. No doubt, this sounds a bit weird. Tragedies are sad. They are supposed to make you cry and feel miserable. Let me confuse you further by saying: Yes, exactly. That’s why I like them!

“So, you’re a masochist?” you might be saying now. No. I mean, not exactly… But in a way, perhaps. I look at sadness as a sort of bath for the soul. Through Tragedy, I am able to experience the most important human emotions which, in the comfortable life I have been blessed with, I would not otherwise encounter. I actively seek out literature that rends the heart and touches the soul. I seem to have a bit of an addiction to… Catharsis.

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Aristotle (detail from Raphael’s School of Athens)

But what is Catharsis? From the Greek κάθαρσις, meaning ‘purging’ or ‘cleansing’, Catharsis is the idea that the experience of strong emotions through a vicarious source (such as art) cleanses and strengthens the mind and soul. This idea was first named by the great Greek Philosopher Aristotle, who compared it to the medical processes wherein the filth accumulated in the body is washed out. The philosopher wrote of this after having attended the performance of a Tragedy, during which, he had experienced this sensation of emotional purgation. He felt Catharsis’ benefit and thereafter, Aristotle and many after him believed that, just as an ailing body must sometimes be cleansed of impurities, so the mind can be cleansed of emotions.

I myself am a strong believer in this idea, having experienced the soothing effect of vicarious emotion many times through some of my favorite books and operas. Being the possessor of an artistic temperament and very passionate emotions, I easily experience the pain of the characters, sometimes on a very deep level. And yet, rather than leave me depressed and unhappy, my mind feels refreshed.

But how does that work? Why would experiencing terrible feelings make a person feel good? It probably sounds like some sort of mystic mumbo-jumbo, but not so: There is science to this, believe it or not.

At some point in your life, you’ve probably experienced what’s known as “a good cry”. Where you’re miserable and you just break down for a while and let the tears flow freely. Perhaps you’ve heard people tell you “Crying never helped anyone.” Unfortunately for them, however, they are actually incorrect. Crying has been scientifically proven to help with mental anguish, as tears caused by emotion have been found to contain stress hormones, which the body is attempting to flush out with water.

If that is so, then it stands to reason that crying emotionally for the troubles of others is even more beneficial to us. We expel those stress hormones without even having the stress caused to us that it usually requires. Almost seems like cheating.

But science isn’t all, in my opinion. More philosophically, I believe that tears shed for others are always nobler than tears shed for oneself. I also believe that empathizing with the suffering of others helps us to find meaning in our own and it conditions our fragile emotions like a sort of mental exercise, making us more able to face hardship when it comes.

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The First Mourning, by William Adolphe-Bouguereau

But not all sad works are created equal. There is a bothersome tendency in this age to call absolutely anything “Tragic”. This is because the real meaning of “Tragedy” is a bit lost in our more cushy modern era. Of course, the word “tragic” has changed over time, and can be used to describe anything which makes us sad. But the proper definition of a Tragedy, comes again from our wise old friend Aristotle. According to the philosopher, a tragedy must be the story of a great and/or good person who, through their own Tragic Flaw or through an inexorable power, is destroyed. The destruction can be physical, especially in the form of death, or it can be spiritual, in the form of turning to evil. The meaning of Tragedy has expanded over time, but basically all of the great tragedies have one important theme in common: the annihilation or loss of something good and pure. This is the ultimate pain of mankind. Everything we consider the worst, such as the death of a child or the destruction of a culture, is related to this idea. The very thought of it can make people weep.

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Herbert von Karajan, conducting

Tragedy is not the only way to reach Catharsis, however. Not everyone reacts to a tragic story the same way. It can make some people sad in a destructive rather than constructive way. For many, it is better to reach the cleansing of the soul by witnessing the best side of humanity. Love, beauty, truth and goodness. This is the way that beautiful things such as Art or especially Music can make someone weep. There is nothing sad about them, but witnessing the composer or artist’s glimpse and attempt at perfection is enough to make us truly grateful to be alive.

Ironic, is it not, that often the emotions that feel the best are expressed through tears? And weeping can be done for countless, often opposing feelings. There are tears for death and for life, tears for hate or for love and gratitude. And not always physical tears are present; sometimes, they are from the heart and are therefore invisible to all. And yet they rain down nonetheless, letting the Catharsis wash and purge our whole being, leaving us refreshed and more human than before.

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